To identify, protect and conserve sites significant to Australia’s social history for the benefit of future generations.
Australia’s cultural heritage was protected with landmark legislation, and the creation of the Australian Heritage Commission and the Register of the National Estate. These measures helped to identify, protect and conserve sites significant to Australia’s social history for the benefit of future generations.
Ratification of the World Heritage Convention
The Whitlam Government’s ratification of the World Heritage Convention on August 22, 1974 gave the Commonwealth a powerful tool for protecting exceptionally valuable cultural or natural heritage sites. This is because of the ‘foreign affairs power’, whereby Commonwealth legislation takes precedence over state legislation in matters regarding foreign affairs. By ratifying this convention, the Whitlam Government gave future Commonwealth Governments the power to protect sites designated as World Heritage areas or sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Because the Commonwealth must protect these sites in order to fulfil its treaty obligations, the foreign affairs power allows it to over-ride decisions by states that threaten them.
The World Heritage Convention ratified by the Whitlam Government empowered the Hawke Government to protect the Franklin River in Tasmania. By designating the Franklin River as a UNESCO World Heritage Area, the Hawke Government had the authority to prevent the Tasmanian Government from building a dam that would have devastated this ecosystem.
The Establishment of the Australian Heritage Commission & Funding of Heritage Conservation Projects
Systemised government protection of Australian heritage sites began with the Whitlam Government. The Australian Heritage Commission was created in June 1975 to create a register of significant heritage places throughout Australia. The listing of sites of significance to Australia's cultural and natural heritage helped to raise awareness of their value and provide some protection against damage to them. In his 1969 election policy speech, Whitlam said that the purpose of the register of the National Estate would be "to keep the beauty we have been given and keep out the ugliness we can only make for ourselves".
The Australian Heritage Commission also helped to recommend and prioritise which conservation projects should receive government funding. Funding was provided for the acquisition and restoration of hundreds of sites around Australia, including Camden Park Estate, Elizabeth Farm and the Macquarie Arms Hotel. In 1975, the historic Female Orphan School building underwent essential repairs with funding provided through the National Estate Program.